Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 4C/Lectionary 9C] - May 29, 2016 (Luke 7:1-10)

To this day in parts of the Middle East it is still considered a serious insult to show anyone the soles of your shoes or the bottom of your feet. Even if you don’t mean it that way—even if you accidentally cross your legs in your friend’s house and prop your foot up on your knee or an ottoman, even if you have the cleanest, newest shoes and there’s nothing gross sticking to them—letting someone see the bottom of your feet is a big no-no. And to this day, even though it’s been almost 15 years since I lived in Cairo, I still struggle with what to do with my feet in meetings when there’s no table to hide behind. This past week I met with one ministry team in the parlor where there are just chairs and sofas and no conference tables and as I got relaxed and started to pick my feet up off the floor, I had this twinge of worry that one of the team members would find me rude.

It’s not just that in Arab culture the bottom of the foot or the sole of the shoe is considered the dirtiest part of the body. It’s the fact that the foot is the lowest part of the body and by showing someone the bottom of it you are essentially sending the message, “You are beneath me. You are lower than whatever status I am.” I got busted on this several times when I was over there, and I guess it has just lodged itself in my subconscious.  So now, if you see me fidget awkwardly in a meeting, please don’t take it personally. I’m just trying to make sure you don’t think I’m insulting you.

I’m not really sure that there is anything comparable here in American culture. I can’t think of a gesture or public action that someone would use to suggest to another person that that person is beneath them or lesser than them. In fact, we are in a particular period of history in our country where we are being challenged to think about systems of privilege that exist and possibly how to dismantle them or at least be aware of them.

In Jesus’ day in the ancient Middle East, things were very different. Society was based on a very hierarchical structure of privilege that almost everyone played by. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is the keenest to point this out for us. Like an archaeologist or anthropologist, Luke lets this system of honor and shame, as they call it, come through in the stories of Jesus he tells. Perhaps no other story illustrates this quite as much as this one where Jesus has an encounter with a centurion. No one in the account shows anyone else the bottoms of his or her feet, but we do see a clear distinction being made as to hierarchy and authority.

In Roman culture the centurion was basically at the top of the social ladder. They were actively serving in the military and their rank was fairly high. They were in charge of battalions of troops and they also commanded a nice salary. They also likely owned a number of slaves, although the way slavery took shape in the ancient world was not exactly how it took shape in this country prior to the Civil War.  We can see from this morning’s story that strong bonds of love and even tenderness could form between a slave and his owner. Centurions, because of their status and wealth, often were key members of a community. They donated funds for public buildings and festivals. They were responsible for keeping people safe and protected. That, too, seems to be the case in this story. We know that the centurion has contributed towards the building campaign of the local synagogue.

All of these social arrangements were based on trying to make people your “clients.” Those toward the top of the social ladder were due the most honor and respect and had the biggest number of clients. The way you worked yourself higher in this system was by getting people to come into your debt in some way, and one of the most common ways that happened was by having people to dinner in your house. If you invited someone and they accepted, then they were acknowledging your power and authority over them, that they were your client and you were their patron.

The other way this system was reinforced was by seeking favors. By asking a favor of someone—perhaps you needed a donation to a building project or protection from a threatening neighbor—you acknowledged they were higher than you. And by granting that favor that person took on the role of patron (and you were their client). Historians tell us that in Jesus’ time, daily life was almost a constant game of that system of privilege and honor, of patron and client, which is probably why the issue of showing the bottoms of one’s feet is still lingering today. People were constantly trying to work their way up as a patron by inviting people over to their house or by showing that they could grant favors to other people. Remember…the New Testament is filled with people eating meals with each other.

Knowing that background, we can better understand what’s happening here. The centurion, who is in a position to offer favors to many people, asks Jesus for a favor to heal his servant. And when Jesus, always willing to humble himself, takes that as an invitation to be a guest at the centurion’s house and essentially become the centurion’s client, the centurion stops him. Two different times the centurion attempts to show he thinks Jesus is a superior. Two different times the centurion uses this patron-client system to display respect and a type of allegiance to Jesus. And two different times Jesus upends it. God is not going to play by the typical rules of dominance and control that humans are so often enamored with.

"Healing the Centurion's Servant" (Paolo Veronese, 16th cent.)
The centurion is impressed with the authority that Jesus commands, and as such he kind of stands out as a character of faith, even above the Jewish leaders that the centurion first sends to speak with him. What is not known, of course, is if the centurion will ultimately be impressed with the way that Jesus displays his authority and uses his power. Being a great healer and restoring life with just one word of command is one thing. Dying on the cross is another. Further down the road, Jesus will seem to hand over his authority and have it mocked by people like the centurion. Jesus will lay down his life, his words all but gone, in order to heal all our divisions, to raise to new life those dead in sin.

I’m pretty sure that we don’t have the same type of patron-client system Jesus dealt with anymore. No one but me is worrying about showing shoe soles and foot bottoms, but yet we do still tend to give a lot of authority and power to people and things who impress us. Celebrities get a lot of worship and attention these days, and we prostrate ourselves at the altar of technology and science and medicine. Favors are sought from people like Mark Zuckerberg and the leaders of Apple. We absolutely idolize those who excel in sports. The most popular movies are filled with all the traditional examples of how to use power and authority. The two superhero movies that were released this spring, “Batman v Superman,” and “Captain America: Civil War” have already grossed more than $2 billion combined. While they may be entertaining, they all still a variation on the same old story: ultimate good must overpower evil with evil’s own tactics in order to win.

In the midst of all of this, I’m not sure we can ever fully grasp just how unimpressive the cross of Jesus really is, even as we worship around it each week. In the midst of all this, I think we all bear a tendency to long for a God who will just dominate, who will come up with a fair and just system of crushing the opponent and outsmarting our enemies, just in a cooler and more novel way than the last, that we can get God just to say a word and everything will be OK.

But that would be, as Paul says to the Galatians, a different gospel. That would still be a way of seeking human approval, of playing client to a divine patron, thinking that if I just do everything right, all will be well.

(Fra Angelico)
So, then, just as a reminder, here’s the gospel, the only one: God does not find ways to place us in his debt so that we serve him like clients. Rather, In Jesus, God finds a way to pay our debt so that we may be free. God not find ways to show us the bottom of his feet so that we know where we stand on the ladder of status. Rather, In Jesus, God stoops to wash our feet and shower us with grace and love and forgiveness. God does not seek ways to impress us and dazzle us with his power. Rather, in Jesus, God seeks ways to love us. God seeks ways to display the unsurpassable value of laying power aside, of letting humility do the talking, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, and of even laying down one’s life for a stranger.

That’s the gospel, the good news. The central force that created this universe and will redeem it is not one based on accruing honor or assigning shame.  It is one of self-sacrifice and compassion, mercy and generosity. In fact, it’s not even a force that is trying to gather us, but a particular person. A particular person it is who loves us and wants a relationship with us, and no matter where you feel you fall on the ladder of life, no matter how many times people have shown you the bottom of their feet, that person—the Christ of Nazarath—he gathers us all here, at the foot…of his cross. That, my friends, authority.

And here’s irony. When you come up to receive him today, you’ll kneel in respect and admiration and, in the process, show everyone behind you the soles of your shoes!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Day of Pentecost [Year C] - May 15, 2016 (Acts 2:1-21)

A story is told of preacher who got a little tired of constantly writing sermons so he decided that one week he was not going to do any of his usual researching and writing and re-writing ahead of time. Instead, when it came time to deliver the sermon, he was just going to step into the pulpit and let the Spirit speak, kind of like Peter at the first Pentecost. Whatever the Spirit said would become his sermon for the day. So the week went by and he enjoyed having some extra time, but he trusted that when the time came to deliver, the Spirit would give him something to say.

Sunday came.  He stepped into the pulpit, opened his mouth, and, by golly, the Spirit spoke. The Spirit clearly said, “You should have written a sermon.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the nature of God’s Spirit. It is both very unpredictable but also completely reliable. It’s a paradox, of course—it doesn’t seem possible that these two qualities could go together, but when it comes to God’s Holy Spirit, they do. The Spirit is unpredictable, volatile, capricious. It defies our desire to pin it down, to structure it for our own purposes, to contain it or control it.

An icon of Pentecost. Note the small flames
over their heads.
We see this impulsive nature not just at that first Pentecost when the disciples are gathered together to celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments and the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and suddenly they begin speaking in different languages and understanding each other. It is there, in fact, from the very beginning, doing things and bringing about things that don’t immediately make sense to us.  The Spirit of God creates life out of nothing, it calls leaders for Israel who have questionable pedigrees, it leads the people of God on a meandering path through the wilderness for forty years. Those are just a few examples of how the movement of the Spirit is not always something you can forecast.

And yet, God’s Spirit is reliable. Its presence is something on which we can count. The Spirit may not ever act in ways we can completely foresee, but we know that Jesus has promised it will guide us, and we know we can rely on its power to move people into action and to create possibilities when it seems like none exist. We can rely on the fact that the Spirit of God—whatever it is that’s at the core of God—to speak to us, to call to us, to unite with our own spirit, but we’re not always able to know when that’s going to occur and what the specific message is going to be.

As a result, I think a lot of people are unsure of what to make of the Holy Spirit, especially Lutherans. Lutherans like predictability. We value reliability, too, but we really like predictability. And we’re pretty solid with the first two persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father and the Son, in part because of this. To some degree it’s easier to get a handle on those two, especially the Son. After all, his whole existence and the crowning point of his ministry was all about people getting a hand on him. When it comes to God the Father we have his voice and his words, and when it comes to Jesus we have a human figure, but in Scripture the Spirit is typically presented in abstract metaphors like fire and wind.

Fire and wind are both unpredictable. They are also technically invisible. One can see presence of wind, for example, in the rustling of leaves or in the spin of a windmill, but the moving air itself is not visible. And the same goes with fire. One cannot actually see the chemical reaction that causes the flame, but is clear that something dynamic and transformative is happening when you get near a fire. There is something a little mysterious about both wind and fire. They’ve got energy, but they really can’t be contained or stopped. They tend to come and go as they please. And so it is with God’s Holy Spirit.

As I reflect on this, I realize that over the last few weeks I’ve become acquainted with another metaphor for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is like a crying newborn. It, too, is not controllable. It has great energy…far out of proportion to its tiny size. And the source of the crying is often mystery—why the baby is crying you may never know! It’s unpredictable, but it’s very reliable, and all you really can do is pick it up and roll with it. Just see where the crying will take you, bouncing as you go, with constant motion! Out of the bedroom, down the hall a few times…around the kitchen…into the car seat…into the car…down the road at 12am…

Unpredictable but reliable. Ever since the beginning it has been apparent to those who’ve been called into this life of faith in the God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, that there was this third element, this third person of God that brought it all together. And at Pentecost, it became clear that this third person, this Spirit of God, this very interior force that brings things to life, has been poured out on God’s people. Our role is to let it rush through us, to let the fire touch us and transform us, to pick up the mysteriously crying newborn with lungs that never cease and bounce with it.

So, because the Spirit of God is both unpredictable but reliable, then we should not be surprised that the church, is going to live a life that is both unpredictable but reliable. It will be unpredictable because there will be no way to foresee or anticipate just where the community of those who follow Jesus will end up, or what specifically they will do. There will be no way for the church, for individual congregations, or even individual believers to know precisely how their faith will burn along the way. Peter and the disciples gathered at Pentecost have no idea that the Spirit of God is about to propel them through the Mediterranean world, taking a small, marginalized message of hope in Jesus to the very halls of power in Rome within just a few decades.

Our own congregation’s new mission statement begins with this realization. “Walk the journey” names the fact that faith in God is ongoing and meandering, often surprising and always unpredictable. The earliest members of Epiphany would have had no idea that sixty some odd years later there would be a Chapel built here, along with a columbarium, or that we’d have a community garden. I also bet they only imagined the possibility of one day having enough resources to have a full-time, called director of Christian faith formation, and that, again, one day that person would have to leave and pursue her call elsewhere. As the Council develops a long-range plan for us, we need to keep in mind this unpredictability factor. We really don’t know just how the Spirit will lead and transform us. It will be exciting, and probably a bit disorienting at times.

But just as our life of faith this side of the resurrection will always involve a measure of unpredictability, the church is also called to be reliable. The people of the God are the vessel for this life-giving presence of God that the world needs to know and hear, that the world will turn to for hope, for love, for justice.

One of my colleagues in Pittsburgh was this man who had been called to a downtown congregation in an old German neighborhood that had been slowly evolving as its original white European members either died off or moved out into the suburbs. Within just a few years its surrounding neighborhood had changed completely. Old stately buildings had become crack-houses and gang dens.  My colleague tried to adjust his ministry to serve the people who were there, but he found it incredibly challenging. The church began to fall into disrepair, too, and there were fewer financial resources to sustain the ministry. He got a few grants to keep things running. He began an afterschool program to get kids off the streets. Eventually he started a summer program to give them a safe haven during the months they weren’t in school. He found people jobs and organized community projects. Slowly but surely he persevered, holding on for dear life most of the time, I’m sure. It went on like this for over twenty years.

By the time I had come to Pittsburgh it was a thriving ministry to the neighborhood. You could say that countless lives had been saved, and some of those children had even been sent on to seminary. He had become a fixture in that neighborhood, and when he announced his retirement, the local paper ran a story on him and the effect his congregation had had on the North Side community. They asked him why he was led there. And he told this story of one of those days early on when he was almost about to throw in the towel. You might say he had gotten weary of the unpredictability. One of the little kids in the afterschool program came into his office and hopped up on his lap and put his arms around the big man. Pastor John asked him how he was doing and the kid seemed sad, as if something in his home or at school had not gone well. The kid looked at him and said, “I’m scared right now. I don’t know how my life is going to turn out, but as long as you’re here, I know I’ll be OK.” That, Pastor John Cochran said, was the turning point. There were people relying on this message he had brought.

The church is called to be reliable in that way, for that is the way the Spirit leads us. We are a people entrusted with the message that God has saved the world through Jesus. We are a people who call on the name of the Lord, ourselves, in such a way that people come to see we are not perfect, but we have faith in a God who is, that we have reason for hope in the future, and that we know love conquers all. We are a great diverse conglomeration of people spanning all time and places, children of God called out from every nation who stand in workplaces, in neighborhoods, in schools, in cities and rural places as a reminder that God is present with humankind. We are called to be reliably united, even in the midst of conflict.

It’s an unpredictable journey, for sure. It’s not always easy to know how to put it into words, if it should be planned out ahead of time or done on the fly. But we trust God is present through the Spirit that has been given. Most of the time all we really can do is let the fire rage within us and see who it transforms. Of, if that metaphor doesn’t work for you, then just think about picking up the screaming baby and move and bounce. Walk that thing right down the aisle and into the narthex. And from the narthex out into the streets…and right out into the world.  

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year C] - May 8, 2016 (John 17:20-26)

One of the most poignant and truly heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever run across in literature occurs right near the end of the novel by Richard Llewellyn called How Green Was My Valley when the last of the sons of the large Morgan family leave their dying coal-mining valley in South Wales and say goodbye to their mother. Their future has collapsed there as the mining industry has gone belly-up and a huge slag heap has crept down the mountainside, threatening everyone’s way of life. What used to be so green and full of life is now gray and covered with coal dust. Beth and her husband Gwilym have watched their family’s way of life erode within one generation and their children start looking to other places for better opportunities. By the end of the novel, each son of the Morgan family has reached the conclusion that in order to have a future they must leave the valley. Of course, this is the 1920s and decades before anything like Facetime or Skype. You realize Beth Morgan will likely never see from her sons again, or maybe even hear their voice.

The scene I’m talking about comes right after the last two sons leave when Huw, who is the only son who had the benefit of a school education, attempts to comfort his forlorn mother by getting down an altas and showing her where all her children are. He takes a pencil and draws lines from Wales to each of the places they’ve settled: two in America, one in New Zealand, one in Germany, another in South Africa. She meanwhile sits there, mending socks to distract her grieving mind, and doesn’t even put on her glasses to look at the map her son is placing in front of her. A person who hasn’t really read much and had had no reason to be familiar with maps and atlases Beth says it just looks like he’s drawn a big spider.

“‘One line from us to Owen and Gwil,’ I said, pointing it for her. ‘Down here to Angharad [his sister]. Over there to Ianto, and down by here to Davy and Wyn. You are like the Mother of a star, Mama. From this house, shining all that way across the continents and oceans.’”

‘All that way,’ my mother said. ‘Goodness gracious, boy, how far, then, if they can have it all on a little piece of paper?’

‘Only a map, it is, Beth,’ my father said, and a wink to me to be quiet. ‘A picture, see, to show you where they are.’

‘They are in the house,’ my mother said, flat. ‘And no old pictures, and spiders with a pencil, if you please.’”[1]

I find it heart-breaking ever time I read it, the grief of the mother as strong as her denial as to where they actually are. She has watched her children grow up around her only to see them scatter, the unity of the family she has sacrificed to maintain broken forever. No matter how Huw tries to spin it, she can’t see her heritage like a bright star beaming across the world. It’s an ugly spider crawling across a piece of paper. This is just a scene from a story and yet I know is real and has happened millions of times before throughout time—and still today—as children leave their mothers and fathers and hometowns to stake out a better living elsewhere.

I think of Beth Morgan and all parents and children on a day like this, but not because it’s Mother’s Day, but because it is the Sunday after Jesus’ Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I think about families because in the words of our gospel lesson this morning Jesus sounds like a mom who is pleading for the children to stay close to home but knows they won’t and they can’t.

All this time the disciples have lived in a glorious valley—they’ve “grown up” around him, seen him perform marvelous signs and heard his teachings. And he’s cared for them, often like a shepherd. He’s washed their feet, fed them with bread and wine and loaves and fishes. He has prayed for their protection from the Evil One. But now it’s reached a crucial hour and the valley is growing dark. It’s the night before Passover, and Jesus is disengaging a bit, maybe darning socks over in the corner now, losing himself in prayer, almost as if he knows the disciples are going to be scattered, their tight community broken apart.

This, too, is a moving, heart-wrenching scene, for we hear it now not quite as they did then. At the time, they were unsure of what would come—the cross, the death, then the resurrection and the doubting—and so they likely listen in to this conversation with some wonder and pride. Jesus is praying for their future, for the wholeness of their fellowship and community, no matter what lies ahead. They are listening to Jesus pray to the Father on their behalf.

However, now we hear it after all of those things have taken place. Jesus still prays it, and we can’t help but think about the way in which his followership has, in fact, been fragmented. There is some regret when we hear this, as we realize that the last thing Jesus prays to his Father for is for the strength and solidarity of our life together. Such a selfless man! And yet we have often been so selfish, not tending to the unity and cohesion of his life like he prays we will. Jesus’ final words on the night before his death are hopeful and powerful but they should haunt us to some degree especially when we look out at how his followers often treat each other in the world. They should chasten us for the ways in which we have let Christianity be turned into a private, individualized religion.

Discipleship in Christ is about togetherness, about serving as a team, although teams are usually in competition against other teams and Jesus never talks like that. Jesus never pits us against any other group, as if part of our witness is attacking or insulting other faith traditions. But he does speak about how we are to get along with each other and how it will be a critical component of living as one of his own in the world.

Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t want us to be one because it’s good for us, although it is. Jesus doesn’t pray for our unity because sticking together is such a beneficial thing for our sake.     There are plenty of organizations that hold up unity in this way, like military units, the a football team, and even families. In those communities thinking and acting as one is helpful or even critical because it helps everyone survive or get something done.

Jesus, by contrast, wants us to be one because it’s good for God. Jesus prays for unity because he knows the quality of our life together says something not about us but about the Father and Jesus, and Jesus is concerned about how God is perceived in the world. Our relationships with each other reflect the character of God—a character that is reconciling, a character that sacrifices self in order to forgive and renew. That’s because the church is not really an organization, with values and traditions and objectives. The church of Jesus Christ is an organism. We are a body that seeks to present the life of a person, crucified and risen, to the world.

Furthermore, our unity turns out to be our greatest tool for witness. Jesus doesn’t just pray to his Father on behalf of his current disciples. He prays on behalf of those who will come to believe in him through our word. Our commitments to remain in dialogue with one another even when we’ve hurt one another, our ability to work through tension and discord, our capacity for forgiveness by the power of the Holy Spirit will all be huge factors—in fact, will be the greatest factor—in our attempts to reach other people with the love of Christ, no matter how far we get flung.

Pastor Joseph and I got a taste this week of just how far-flung our own community is in this region. Realizing that just about every week we have people drive from at least six different counties to worship with us and take part in our ministries, on Thursday, the Ascension of our Lord, we took off from here and beat the bounds, driving as close to the perimeter of Epiphany’s territory as we could. Beating the bounds is an old church tradition from England that has long since died out here, if it ever even was really practiced. When we initially planned this, the original intent was just to get us outside of the church’s four walls for a day and give us a better appreciation for what was going on out there. It also might have been an excuse for eating out at a few places and ending at a brewery, but that’s neither here nor there.

Whatever it was supposed to be, it turned out to be more joyful than I’d reckoned. Never in my planning of this event did I anticipate just how neat it would be to walk into a Panera Bread or a Starbucks and see one of you already waiting there, or to sit at a Waffle House in eastern Mechanicsville and see one of you walk through the door. Never did we think about the fact that people who have been attending here for years might meet each other for the first time over coffee in Midlothian.

By the end of the day we were back in the city of Richmond, giving thanks for the ways in which each of you are embodying Christ in your individual lives, wherever they get lived, but also a part of a whole. I suppose went out with the idea of learning about how spread apart we are, but was I took away was how connected we actually are.

As the people who joined us spoke and shared in the discussion, it drove home again how each day God forms his own map on our atlas. But, in our case, at least, its design does not form an ugly spider, something to mourn and be frightened of. We do form rays of a star—the bright and morning Star, in fact, as the writer of Revelation describes him at the end of his book.

Yet in one way, Beth Morgan is correct in her denial as she watches her last two sons leave the village, never to return. We, the baptized, are still in the house. No matter where we are, we are in the household Christ, one family, children of the one eternal God.

And one day, Jesus promises, we will fully understand and know that, reunited with all those we love who have come and gone from this dark valley.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn. Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, NY, 1940. p460-461